Writing It Real contributor Carol Smallwood is a poet with several volumes to her name, a retired career librarian who has produced books of value to those who direct and run libraries and educational programs, and she is the editor of writing books for new and experienced writers and teachers of writing. In 2018 she received the Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award. View her Amazon book page here to see the many bright windows she has offered through her writing.
The following short personal essay (flash nonfiction) is from her newest book Visits and Other Passages. As you read this essay set in a library just as a tornado watch is announced, you will have the pleasure of getting to know the author’s sensibility about libraries as a home in which you mingle with the remembered words of literary ancestors, a home with furnishings purchased in memory of others who also loved the library.
This day in the quiet between tornado warnings, Smallwood is acutely aware that she is sitting at the cusp of societal change. From that perspective, she weaves the past with a future she sees coming to libraries and youth. She is on a tornado watch of her own.
by Carol Smallwood
It was when I was reading Flannery O’Connor’s guiding principle, “For the near blind you must write large” on the top floor of the college library, when a tornado watch was announced. The beat of an unseen distant drummer, the last to leave some campus band practice, began to acquire a native’s plea to the gods. The sky was a peculiar gray and the wind was rising according to the treetops. A small butterfly fluttered by.
Where were the shelter areas? The announcer said they were posted in the printer areas, but I was too hot from walking from the parking lot and up the flights of stairs. I fluffed my Alice in Wonderland hair away from my neck and wondered why the marble table was cooler against my knees. Least I thought it marble—it looked like the marble in the pictures of ancient buildings—and tried not to remember that molecular structure was mostly space.
Equally fantastic was the book review of Ian Hacking’s Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Science of Memory I’d left off reading yesterday. I learned that 90% of people with multiple personalities are women—mostly sexually abused as children. That before 1972, multiple personalities were far and few between; twenty years later thousands of cases were diagnosed in the United States alone. The reviewer, Marc Rothenberg, noted that “Intellectual and social context play a large role in diagnostics; illness has been and is historically formed.” Yes, it was true. Post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t just something soldiers got.
The carpeting had patterns like elephant ears or floppy petals—the tweed between rust and gray. When I’d leave, I’d rub my foot like a cat leaving its scent through scent glands on their pads, reluctant to go. The library’s open space combined with the hum of circulating air and endless books never failed to transform me into Superman, the sense aided by the tops of tall buildings.
The train whistle seemed more rarefied from the top floor of the library, like it’d traveled purer air. A ghostly sound, abstract, which, if visible would be wispy silver gray. It had a warning tone today, as if reminding that everything changed, that if you just looked, you saw libraries giving way to electronics. Yet it felt secure on the top floor and I recalled Isak Dinesen’s remark about the high country: “Looking back,” she said in Out of Africa, “you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air.”
The black and white clock was unsentimental, naked, institutional—the kind in schools and hospitals only thicker because, like Janus, it was two-sided.
Coming from the direction where white matted rectangular frames were precisely placed on the middle of the wall like aprons on an expansive stomach, came a librarian leading new faculty on a guided tour. That meant the beginning of the fall semester: that the library would lose its club-like privacy. The librarian looked like she knew she no longer belonged to a select group, like priests once were–the only ones able to read in earlier cultures: she looked in fact, uncertain, as if she was beginning to realize she was a part of the uncharted: that she’d gone down the rabbit hole, and like Alice, hadn’t considered “how in the world she was to get out” of the hands of software vendors.
There was one thin young woman, unsmiling, wearing her teaching face, among the men. When she passed, she looked through me, preferring perhaps, not to see herself sitting there when she got my age. One of the faculty had a look of an artist searching for something to embody the whole. Uncle Walt would scrutinize with sidelong glances until he latched upon an article of clothing to disparage whoever didn’t agree with him. And do it in such a clever way that it didn’t even seem remotely vicious, so that when you saw the person, your eyes would immediately fall on the article of clothing he’d ridiculed.
The new faculty all looked so young, not much older than students, unaware that they were lucky not to be teaching K-12 students about 9/11, the War in Iraq, and the U.S. role in the U.N. Students soon knew, however, even though we tried to keep them in their childhood cocoon, that things were more complicated than being a safety patrol person, a cheerleader or football player. Perhaps it would be better to tell them the truth and not have them try to make sense of things through rock stars. Movie stars replaced the aristocracy we once tried to follow to catch reflected light: Lady Di was half and half.
Yet, despite all our democratic distrust of privilege, ads flourish about Jaguars and such. Vatican II (1962-1965) modernizations took the bloom off the glamour of the nation’s largest church. Did President Clinton do us any favors by becoming one with the people by his actions in office? President George H.W. Bush by disguising his patrician background as one of the boys from Texas?
I’d taken a chair by the window since the light there was better, wondering again, why the walls were a dark wine and therefore absorbed the dim ceiling lighting. There was a tall floor lamp nearby with a shade reminiscent of hats worn in rice paddies, the bulbs two small fluorescent rings shaped like racetracks. The cord discreetly vanished in a carpeting opening. The chair was one of several spindle-back wicker-rockers circling the table as ready for a church bizarre knitting circle or glasses on a veranda. One of them had a plaque, and when I felt the raised lettering, I tried to picture Mary A. Brown as I thanked her. The blond wood and blond wicker looked good but how does one hold a book or write in a rocking chair with thin bony arms however picturesque? Still, it had the advantage of poking your back so you wouldn’t fall asleep—and besides, they made you feel special and were cooler.
The floor area that the expanding bookshelves moved on railroad-like tracks was a bit raised, uneven, hollow sounding, encouraging a fear of being smashed. Wouldn’t the concentration of the books make for a heavier structure of flooring to support them, thereby wiping out the savings in space? A shelf moved—then a girl, a library worker, came flip-flopping in thongs pushing a shelving cart. When she left I saw her shirt was one of those with a label on the outside—whether for comfort, advertisement, or fashion I didn’t know.
If she’d noticed me, would she have understood I was there because it was fun? Would she have understood Robert Frost’s line, “He studied Latin like the violin/Because he liked it—that an argument!” Did they teach Frost anymore?
Would she one day wake up, even in this post-feminist world of multiculturalism, and find the world groomed for her gone as surely as Scarlett’s pre-Civil War world after the South was defeated? That the bread she’d been eating as a daughter and wife had been filled with preservatives and additives to maintain the tradition that obedient, religious women were worthy of love? She was lucky to have grown up after the Women’s Movement and didn’t have to straddle two worlds; she wouldn’t have to grasp at straws to make bricks to navigate walls. Or will she? Did it anger her that Women’s Fiction (Romance) was also called Chick Lit?
Still, those born after the Cold War can hardly understand how it ever came about—the tension of the Bay of Pigs, not knowing if the world was going to be blown up right then had faded from collective memory. I’d been in college then, afraid, far from home—and, having read Thomas Wolfe, knew I couldn’t go home again. And yet she’d probably have different labyrinths; I hoped before then, she’d have had taken a mythology class and had sturdier shoes.
To my right were computer stations. They were so popular that when I saw a student at a study carrel, I took another look to reassure myself a laptop was in sight—and often there was. When I saw students in groups, it was over a computer. I preferred seeing lone students hunched over books, heads propped by clenched fists, or chewing pencils and fingernails, willing the words inside their brain—preferably for life, or at least until the next test. They wouldn’t know until they were older, that it was the discipline acquired in managing the labyrinth of teaching styles, conflicting facts, and their own turmoil, that remained.
The tornado watch was announced again. Was it a canned announcement for such times?
Would I ever get over that odd feeling seeing students talking on cell phones? It used to be bottled water they carried like umbilical cords. How could they sleep dead to the world like that?
When I left, splotches of rain had turned the sidewalk shades of camouflage, a narrow labyrinth in steam.